“There was just a really similar mind-set between what I wanted out of graffiti and what a candy wrapper would provide.” Steve Powers says this as I’m driving him to buy spray paint at a Center City art-supply store, where it’s kept under lock and key, triggering a joke about how much faster it used to be when he just shoplifted the stuff. He also tells me about a prison-initiation ritual as a way of illustrating the idea that there’s no free lunch. But I’ll get back to that.
A native of Overbrook and a one-time graffiti artist, Powers, 44, knows his way around cans of spray paint and outlaw art. But that was years ago. Manhattan galleries now exhibit his work. In 2010 he teamed with the Mural Arts Program for Love Letter, an endearing, eye-catching series of 50 murals on buildings along the Market-Frankford line in West Philly featuring offbeatly sweet messages (“This love is real so dinner is on me,” “See me like beautiful I see you”). But his newest Philly project is part of a decade-long quest to revive a humble craft: the hand-painted storefront sign. He and his crew are designing and giving them away for free.
The project, dubbed Icy Signs, has outposts in Brooklyn, South Africa and, as of a few weeks ago, North Philadelphia’s Brewerytown section, with the aim here to create signs for businesses along the West Girard Avenue corridor. My short odyssey with Powers to get supplies was prompted specifically by the need to paint a peeved-looking cat sitting in a washtub next to a resigned-looking dog for Best in Show, a pet-grooming operation on the 2700 block of Girard. Powers and Mike Levy, Icy Signs’ workshop manager, agreed they didn’t have the right orange for the cat.
“What I really love about signs is that they’re obvious. That’s what’s so great,” says Powers. “Art is confusing. It’s opaque. The best art sometimes is the stuff that’s hardest to get. Whereas the best signs are the ones that are the easiest to get — the ones that you understand immediately what that sign is trying to tell you.” His team’s first sign on Girard was for a restaurant called Chicken Master, whose owner walked three doors down and knocked on Icy Signs’ door shortly after they set up shop. The sign consists of the establishment’s name in black against an Easter-egg-blue background and a chicken head in the middle. It’s simple. It’s stylish. It’s a little goofy. For Best in Show, Powers explains, “It’s got to be a successful pet-grooming sign. It can’t be my interpretation of a pet-grooming sign.” Although that annoyed cat comes close to poetic license.
When Powers started doing his graffiti in Philly he came up with the name ESPO, which stands for Exterior Surface Painting Outreach. He’s still known by that moniker. He moved to New York in 1994, at 26, by which point his efforts had become “mostly legal, with a few illegal things sprinkled in.” Eventually, he recounts, “I fell in with a self-described outcast named Revs, and he was painting really nontraditional graffiti. He was just going around with a bucket and a roller, and he was starting to write his biography in the tunnels of the New York City subway system, and enlisted me as an assistant and collaborator. It ended up being a six-year project — he painted, like, 235 pages in different tunnels in the subway system. So me meeting him was like it suddenly took traditional graffiti off the table and I wanted to do different things.”
One of those things was graffiti that looked like advertising. He’d find abandoned storefronts where the sign above had been covered over with white paint, and he’d paint his ESPO logo on those blank signs, effectively creating what appeared to be ESPO-branded stores.
Icy Signs is an outgrowth of efforts that began about 10 years ago, when he and his crew moved into Coney Island on a mission to paint signs for local businesses for free. In 2004, the idea became more formal (and funded) with the help of Creative Time, an organization that commissions large public-art projects such as the twin beacons of light that rose from the World Trade Center site six months after 9/11. Called the Dreamland Artist Club, the project involved more than 20 artists painting signs and attractions in Coney Island. Powers, for example, painted the cars of the iconic Cyclone roller coaster.
When they first approached Coney Island businesses, Powers says, “People were suspicious of our motives” for giving away signs for free. By way of explaining this mistrust, he relates a perhaps apocryphal, or possibly Snopes-worthy, but nonetheless apt anecdote: On a guy’s first night in prison he’ll find a Twinkie on his cot, and he’ll eagerly eat it, and the next morning a hulking guy will come up to him and say, “That was my Twinkie. You’re now in my debt.”
Icy Signs, however, really is giving away the Twinkies — Powers can do this because, he explains simply, “I sell art.” In September he had a solo show at a Chelsea gallery of his enamel-on-aluminum signs, which according to a 2008 New York Times article sell for as much as $20,000. He was once represented by high-powered gallerist Jeffrey Deitch, who went on to become the director of Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art. And some of Icy Signs’ jobs are indeed paid commissions. For the Brewerytown outpost, Icy Signs also has the advantage of getting its space rent-free — thanks not to New York art-world hookups, but to an “aw, how cute” toddler connection.
“My oldest and one of my closest friends is one of Steve’s guys, [workshop manager] Mike Levy,” says David Waxman, co-founder of MMPartners, a real-estate and development company in Brew-ery-town. “He and I have been friends since preschool.”
When Powers recently lost the huge space he was using in Brooklyn, Levy called Waxman, and a few days later a truck pulled up in front of the MM-owned storefront at 2819 W. Girard Ave. that would become Icy Signs’ Philly home.
A real-estate company giving away space might not sound like an obviously smart business practice, but Waxman sees multiple benefits. “Number one, it’s supporting an artist whose work we really, really like a lot. Second, it’s a friend, so any time you can do a favor for a friend it’s great. Third, it’ll go a long way to helping us create this urban environment that we’re trying to create here [in Brewerytown] that’s organic and just sort of arts-driven. ... It creates some good buzz around the neighborhood as well.”
MMPartners has been focusing its efforts on both residential and commercial development in Brewerytown for several years now. Waxman and business partner Jacob Roller have rehabbed row houses and constructed new buildings. They’ve lured businesses to Girard: A Mugshots Coffeehouse, a bike shop, a pharmacy. Their deal to bring in a Mike Stollenwerk restaurant fell through, but it shows their ambitions.
Icy Signs’ mere existence helps MM’s cause by filling an empty storefront. “This does tie in with us and our overall development strategy for Brewerytown,” says Waxman. “So much of it revolves around creating this vibrant commercial corridor on Girard Avenue, and signage is such a big thing in terms of the urban environment.” Populating Girard is key: MM aims to create, says Waxman, an “interesting commercial corridor, with the right retail tenants that we want to see up here to help us evolve our development plan. Because at the end of the day, if you can’t walk out of your door and get a cup of coffee or a bite to eat or something else, then your neighborhood is not a really desirable place to live.”
After the Coney Island project, says Powers, “We just keep opening up sign shops in different places ever since. Sometimes it’s in gallery settings. It’s been in a couple museums. Ideally, it’s in a storefront in a community like Brooklyn or North Philadelphia or Johannesburg.” He is happy to have a Philly presence and to get a production space for free (actually, not quite — there are insurance costs, and when it comes to his MM landlords, “There’s talk of artwork changing hands. I feel I’m going to get taxed at some point,” he says with a laugh).
The focus on Brewerytown is useful for the time being. “Just as a staging area, it makes sense and it cuts down on expenses — commuting and everything else,” he explains. “We can just walk to the site, install the sign, carry our tools back. It’s a lot more simple and it’s a way of streamlining the process. Once we’ve exhausted all the opportunities in the immediate area we’ll branch out from there. But,” Powers notes, “there’s a lot to do on Girard Avenue.”